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21 August 2019

BBC Two’s The Octopus in My House reveals the humanity of a sea creature

By Rachel Cooke

Mmm, octopus. In her classic book, Flavours of Greece, Rosemary Barron suggests that the cephalopod be lightly grilled over charcoal, having first been boiled, peeled and marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. Its ink sac, meanwhile, may be roasted inside an aubergine or the skin of an onion. Serve both as a meze, perhaps with a cold glass of ouzo, or as a main course with a salad of greens and a peppy bottle of red.

Delicious! Except… Oh, dear. Un-squeamish, unfussy and unsentimental as I am, having watched Anna Fitch’s documentary (22 August, 9pm), in which a professor of marine biology called David Scheel decides to keep an octopus called Heidi in his sitting room, I do not think I will be eating this particular mollusc again at any point in the near future. Henceforth, as the air fills with the scent of briny white flesh, I will think of Heidi’s surprisingly human-looking eye, fixed with unexpected fondness on Scheel and his teenage daughter Laurel (and sometimes even on their television set – tuned, naturally, to something informative by David Attenborough), and my stomach will shrivel at the merest thought of chewing on a delicate, suckered leg.

Scheel, who teaches at a university in Anchorage, Alaska, had long wondered what it would be like to get closer to an octopus, a highly intelligent animal that has three hearts and blue blood – yeah, the legs are only the half of it. And so it came to pass that after his divorce, when he found himself with more space in his house (his ex, he said, had taken a lot of the furniture), he came to install a large tank, placing inside it a young day octopus (a warm water species that is so called because it keeps, unlike most octopuses, daylight hours). At first, I felt for poor Laurel, who’d longed for a dog. As the daughter of a scientist myself, I know exactly what it’s like when the old man passes off his experiments as fun gifts. But as Heidi slowly revealed her personality, a sense of mischief emerging from deep inside her alien exterior, I began to see things differently. That’s the thing about this film: it makes you see everything differently, the world (or more specifically, the ocean) suddenly tipped upside down.

Heidi loves to play. Given a toy (an old pill bottle, say), she hurls it round as if it were a swimming aid, and she a toddler newly out of water wings. Scheel has trained her so effectively to pull on a string that activates a buzzer that in the end he has to dismantle the thing if he wants to get a night’s sleep. She loves to touch and be touched, entwining her arms with those of Laurel for minutes at a time. Does she recognise her owners? Indubitably. When Scheel approaches the tank as himself, she rushes to its side, as if in greeting. But when he approaches disguised in a rubber mask, she hides. Do octopuses dream? Scheel is convinced that Heidi does, largely because as she rests she changes colour. He believes she is dreaming of camouflaging herself while hunting her prey (the octopus version of the snoozing dog that imagines it is running after a stick).

Until recently, it was thought that octopuses were solitary. But then a diver found a group in Sydney Bay living together among a load of old clam shells (octopuses eat in their dens, and then chuck the hard bits outside their front doors): an environment christened Octopolis by Scheel and his colleagues. Perhaps, then, these animals have complex social lives, just as humans do, for all that they’re a unique expression of evolution, so radically different in appearance and everything else from us, or any other creature.

Speaking of unique expressions of evolution, I must now make mention of Scheel’s hair, a locis fruticibus, or area of bushiness, that deserves a full scientific study all of its own. At moments, it was short and neat; at others, slightly longer and more unkempt. Sometimes, though, it had bloomed, seemingly overnight, so hugely that – woah, Professor! – he resembled, in spite of his beard, Mrs Slocombe in Are You Being Served? The lord only knows what the ever-beady Heidi made of this. She may have been terrified. Perhaps that’s why she kept ringing that bell. 

The Octopus in My House

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This article appears in the 21 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con